BATON ROUGE — Frustration, even outright anger, with Gov. Bobby Jindal has been simmering in the Louisiana Legislature for years, building as the Republican governor’s presidential ambitions grew more obvious.
But widespread legislative sentiment that Jindal has been making decisions based on a GOP presidential campaign he’s expected to announce June 24 may have a silver lining for the state, possibly putting limits on the next Louisiana governor’s power and forcing sweeping change for state budget and tax policy.
In the just-ended legislative session, senators enacted changes to their leadership selection process aimed at limiting a governor’s meddling and increasing legislative independence. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate agreed to curtail the broad records exemptions granted to the governor, to provide more information to the public.
And the state’s financial situation — hamstrung by Jindal’s rigid positions on tax discussions — has become so troubled that the next governor elected this fall will almost certainly hold a special session to allow the type of wide-ranging, needed debate on the budget and taxes that lawmakers haven’t had for years.
More through tradition than constitutional authority, Louisiana’s governor has wielded significant power and sway over the business of the independently elected legislative branch.
The governor’s ability to veto line items in the budget, control which construction projects secure state financing and appoint hundreds to state boards and commissions has regularly been used to keep lawmakers in line — and to limit what should be a separation of powers.
Lawmakers have allowed governors to choose their leaders and anoint committee chairmen. Jindal, term-limited and unable to run for re-election, has used that tradition and power to his advantage, just like his predecessors.
But the increasing rockiness of the relationship between lawmakers and Jindal may have set the stage for some notable shifts when a new governor takes office in January.
A day before the legislative session ended last week, the Senate enacted changes to the way it chooses its president and president pro tempore (the chamber’s second-ranking job) every four years. They agreed to a secret ballot.
With that change, senators say a governor’s arm-twisting and threats can’t carry as much sway in the votes because the governor won’t be able to find out how individual senators voted — and won’t be able to retaliate.
“The things that prevent us from being independent I think could be alleviated with a secret ballot,” said Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, who sponsored the rule change.
As they urged passage, senators talked of the heavy hand of governors in legislative decisions. Sen. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan, called the rule change “the most important vote for the future of this body.”
“It’s easy to say you’re a senator, you’re independent. We all know that practically right now that ain’t possible,” said Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma.
In the last days of their work, lawmakers also gave final passage to a proposal that would limit the secrecy of the governor’s office, to lessen the sweeping records exemptions that keep most information in the office hidden from the public.
Whether Jindal will agree to the record changes remains unclear. But lawmakers tried to make it an easy decision for him, setting the start date to coincide with the next governor’s term. The bill wouldn’t impact Jindal at all.
The more wide-ranging implication of the fractured relationships between lawmakers and Jindal could be tied to finances.
As Jindal guarded his record against tax increases, lawmakers went along with the governor’s push to use piecemeal financing to patch their way through the budget each year.
With savings accounts drained and continued budget problems on the horizon, lawmakers and the four major candidates for governor have started conversations about a wholesale review of Louisiana’s tax structure and its billions of dollars in tax breaks.
A special session on the issue is expected when a new governor takes office, in the hopes of putting the state on a more solid financial footing.
Whether Louisiana gains improvements from the legislative discontent with Jindal is up to how the state’s next governor and future lawmakers use the opportunities presented to them.